When I landed in Madrid in September ’16, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted in a neighborhood. See, I’d been reading blogs and stalking instagrams for almost a year, so I based my expectations off those stories and images. I wanted to live in the city center near all the hustle and bustle; with the kind of views that a postcard couldn’t even compete with. So while I spent my first days in an Airbnb, I was apartment hunting like my life depended on it.
Well, life has a funny way of reminding me I’m not in control. I got curved and swerved by apartment renters at least 10 times a day. It even got to the point that I had to consider temporarily living in a hostel. Fortunately I met two equally desperate auxiliares, and we soon began looking for apartments together. When I found a gorgeous 3 bedroom piso online, I quickly scheduled to see it the next day. We were so impressed at the end of the tour that we were drafting potential leases the very same night. There was only one source of hesitation: the neighborhood. It was completely unfamiliar. More distant than we imagined. Not quite as hip as the streets of La Latina or Malasaña. I scoured the web for more information about the area, but found no mention from auxiliares or other English teachers. When I asked Spanish natives and long-term residents for advice, the overwhelming response was disapproval. They called it ghetto, boring, dirty, and even dangerous. Not one person had anything positive to say. Nevertheless, we moved forward with renting the apartment. Cause, you know, living in the “ghetto” beats being homeless in my book.
So my friends moved into our new apartment that weekend, while I temporarily stayed with the portera in the same building. She was kind enough to take me into her home for a month until the third bedroom in our apartment was ready for me to move into (long story). From that point, I was determined to learn more about my community. I wanted to make the effort to form an opinion of my own.
In a building between Metro Oporto (L5) and Opañel (L6), I live in the district referred to as Carabanchel. It’s split into seven barrios, or neighborhoods: Abrantes, Comillas, Opañel, Puerta Bonita, San Isidro, and Vista Alegre. With a (currently) estimated 270,000 residents, it’s the most populated district in the city of Madrid. It also, like Lavapies, is known for its diverse population; home to many North African, South American, and East European immigrants.
Though part of Madrid, it is considered a suburb by many – forming the most southwest border of the city. Surrounding districts are Latina (west), Arganzuela (northeast), and Usera (east). Further south is the (actual) suburb of Leganès. Well-known attractions in the district include Cárcel de Carabanchel, Parque de San Isidro, Puente de Toledo, and Islazul.
Before I delve any deeper, let me clearly state that I’ve been familiar with my fair share of neighborhoods. I’ve inhabited suburbs and inner-cities alike, from the South Side of Chicago to the North Suburbs of Atlanta. I know what it’s like to be friends with everyone on the block, and I know what it’s like to be afraid of your neighbors. Carabanchel is the “hood” of Madrid, but not by the dangerous (and often fallacious) standards we typically think of. Much like the South and West Side of Chicago, there are economic factors stratifying the population. Poverty is perpetuated by a lack of resources, which puts the district low on the totem pole for new developments. Residents express frustration with poor citywide representation, like being excluded from the bikshare program BiciMadrid. There have also been protests against the influx of cemeteries, when gymnasiums or health centers are much more needed in the community.
Now, in stark contrast to the state (as in circumstance, not geography) of Chicago, I have NEVER felt unsafe living in Opanel. In fact, I’ve walked the streets at 3 am without even bothering to take out my headphones. Of course, due to differences in economy and legislation, there isn’t as large a presence of violence and drugs. Sure, I’ve seen examples of what I guess could be “gang-related” graffiti, but with names like Ebola Criminals, I’m far more amused than concerned. The truth is, Opañel is a neighborhood of families. You’ll see a crap-ton of senior citizens, groups of school-uniformed teenagers, and adults eating tapas, putting down cañas like water. These have become the familiar faces of my community. I’ve made friends with local business owners, and the regulars on my commute. I get called hermana and hija, and it my warms my little heart.
So no, the streets aren’t at glamorous as you’d expect of Madrid. There are no grand palaces or plazas to claim. The sidewalks are littered with flyers for anonymous prostitutes (much like Vegas), and the buildings are covered in elementary graffiti. I’m convinced tapas bars and chinos make 80% of the economy (not including the peddlers who sell kleenex, tamales, and fake Nikes every day).
But if I had the chance to start over, I wouldn’t change a damn thing. I love living in an area that most tourists avoid. I love getting to know the “ugly” and “boring” part of town. I love the views that I get when I stand on my balcony. I love the diversity represented in the faces I see…the Colombian bakery across the street and the afro peluquería just up the block. When I walk through Opanel, I feel like I’m home – not just an expat/immigrant in a foreign land.